Christopher Harris

“I hope this doesn’t happen but it’s just going to take one 16- or 17-year-old to drop dead on a sporting field before someone notices that it’s not fictional.”

That’s a hell of a quote, isn’t it? 

Put it in the context of what we’re really talking about here — football — and it becomes even more interesting.

Families around the Commonwealth eagerly awaited Monday’s word from Frankfort about the fate of fall sports in schools. The KHSAA had a plan to go ahead and play. Many expected Gov. Andy Beshear to shut it down, but he begrudgingly decided not to do so; “We can’t be making every decision for what’s best for folks out of the governor’s office,” he said.

Dr. Steven Stack, Commissioner of the Department for Public Health, also made an appearance following Beshear, however, and shared his own concerns about playing fall sports, as so many across Kentucky have wanted to do. There was even a rally with a simple message: “Let Them Play!”

Stack’s concerns had much to do not just with the virus but with the potential effects it could have on the heart, and what dangers that heart condition could pose to athletes. (I’m not going to argue in this space whether that itself is a valid concern or not. The statistics are out there for us to read and decide for ourselves.)

When I first read Stack’s quote as stated at the beginning of this column, I was taken aback by the bluntness of it. Did he really say that? I had to look it up to make sure, eventually going back to the feed of the livestream to hear it for myself.

“(I)t’s going to take one 16- or 17- year-old to drop dead ...”

Personally, I found it somewhat tactless, the kind of shock shlock that brings to mind old “Death on the Highway”-type driver’s safety videos or “Reefer Madness.” A statement designed to tug on visceral reactions for negative emotional effect. I also felt it sounded like someone growing upset that people weren’t just listening to him, but rather relying on their own perspectives, as humans are wont to do. Perhaps I’m wrong. But that was my reaction.

Of course, there really are two wholly separate interests here at play. Stack lives in a world of medical journals, stats, figures, studies. He likely eats, sleeps and breathes medical information. That sounds like it would make you good at what you do, and perhaps it does, but it can also give you tunnel vision. To other people, other things matter. Things other than health statistics and studies. Things like traditions and dreams and the joy of a crisp fall evening spent on a hard bleacher seat. For the “Let Them Play!” group, that’s the world they live in, the one they’ve ate, slept and breathed for years.

That’s just the reality of the conflict at play here. It’s not just a matter of priorities. It’s about different ways that different people see the world based on the lives they lead.

But there is another factor to consider here, if I may be as blunt for a moment as Dr. Stack, a teenager running the risk to “drop dead” on a playing field is always a concern, and has been long before anyone knew what COVID-19 is. It’s true of volleyball, it’s true of soccer, but it’s especially true of football — and let’s be honest here, it’s football that’s really driving the push to play. I’m not sure the other fall sports would stir that kind of passion in people. It’s football that’s baked into the culture of certain communities, that brought folk heroes like Tim Couch and Kash Daniel out of the mountains, that cements a school’s legacy in Kentucky athletics history. To steal a slogan from the Southeastern Conference, for which football it almost a religion, it just means more.

And football has always been a most dangerous sport. Awareness of brain injuries and a focus on targeting hits have been major talking points in the sport in recent years, with the goal of making it safer — in the earliest years of football, deaths on the field were actually not too uncommon. A notable piece of football lore is the Time Magazine article from 1931 that reported the deaths of 40 young men that season, adding, “To approximate that record of deaths it is necessary to go back to 1905 when more than a score of players died and President Roosevelt stopped the roughness of play.”

Certainly, football has become a safer game since then — but it is still not “safe.” Nothing that involves heavy bodies slamming into each other at intense speeds should be considered safe — it’s like the human equivalent of a demolition derby. For example, the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research put out a report for the 2018 season that noted two fatalities directly resulting from play that year, both at the high school level. There were seven more indirect ones (deaths resulting from systemic failure as a result of exertion while participating in a football-related activity, or by a complication from a non-fatal injury), including four at the high school level and three in college football. Granted, out of the total number of high schoolers playing, those are infinitesimal numbers, but we all know how it happens. Anyone who has ever watched football has seen terrifying injuries unfold on the field — if they didn’t result in paralysis, then you were worried they would. Everyone in the stadium or at home holding their collective breath and hoping for the best. Then there’s the prevalence of concussions, broken bones, muscle tears — these are part and parcel of the football life.

By no means am I suggesting people shouldn’t play football at all. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoy watching it. If I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t know that I’d want my own kid to play, if I had one. But there are many, many families who feel differently, and I understand why. It’s their choice, and I respect that. This is a big part of their lives and has been for generations. The whole identity of some small communities in this state (and especially in places like Texas and Ohio) is built around what happens on the high school gridiron. To take that away would be like taking away a piece of their soul.

Stack is concerned about the danger posed by playing sports specifically due to COVID-19. But it has always been dangerous. Was he similarly concerned before then? I don’t know. I couldn’t find any evidence in a Google search that he was, but most results with his name have to do only with the virus situation, which is to be expected.

But I feel like if you’re going to be concerned enough to discourage playing with the dangers that exist now, you should have also been so concerned with the dangers that existed all along. To me, that’s being consistent. For families, they see the COVID-19 information and they see the hazards that are presented. But those are just additional risks for them. They’ve always known there were risks. For them, other things outweighed those risks. For someone focused so specifically on the coronavirus problem, it might be hard to see a bigger picture, but for others, it’s just one more big, nasty-looking gnarled tree in a deep, dark scary forest that one must cross through to reach something incredible and meaningful for themselves.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. That would take more than a team of medical experts, that would take a clairvoyant. I hope the season gets to play out as planned. I hope it happens without any major catastrophes, either COVID-19-related or otherwise. I hope kids and families get to live out their dreams, don’t get cheated out of their priceless high school memories and experiences, and that everyone can look back on the decisions that were made and be happy with them. I hope it happens that way, but it might not.

But we have always been a culture that has valued the pursuit of glory, of achievement, and of satisfying our need for fun and recreation, whether as a participant or a fan. These are vital parts of who we are, and they are worth preserving, in this day and age or any other. It is worth at least trying — for the emotional health of our communities if nothing else. 

CHRISTOPHER HARRIS is a Staff Writer at the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at charris@somerset-kentucky.com.

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